Philippe Auclair

About Philippe Auclair

Philippe Auclair has been a correspondent with France Football for over a decade, and is a prolific freelance journalist on both sides of the Channel. He is the author of the award-winning Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King and a bestselling author in his native France. He lives in London.

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Latest book

Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top

Books by Philippe Auclair

  • Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top
  • Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King

An interview with Philippe Auclair

Why did you choose to write a biography of Eric Cantona?

The idea was suggested to me by my agent Jonathan Harris over some tapas in Mayfair. I took it on board immediately - I’m not sure that Jon had a chance to finish his question before I said: ‘of course!’ I’d read a great deal about Eric before, and had always felt frustrated by how willing profile writers and biographers were to take his dark legend at face value. It suited everyone, it seems. I was also very lucky be already in touch with a number of people who’d been major characters in his story; and I loved the player, of course: the most collectively-minded of all soloists, a true footballer whose greatness was belittled by the excessive admiration or vilification that had come his way. Within a few days, I was hooked, not just by his personality, but also by the very strange relationship which exists between a biographer and his subject. At first, you feel like a thief breaking into someone else’s life; then you make a home in it - it sounds like an awkward process, but it is not.

Do you feel that all of your questions about Eric were answered?

By no means. I don’t think he himself has the answer to these questions. And there are questions that I must have missed myself. I had to be content with the idea that I’d trained a number of searchlights on him, which others had left aside. And I believe that I came up with some answers.

If you could interview any footballer, dead or alive, who would it be?

George Best. I interviewed him, in fact, but a few weeks before his death, when he was painfully frail, whereas the Best I’d have wanted to talk to was the man who lived in a futuristic house made of glass in Manchester. He never lost his extraordinary charm, but, by the time I met him, the spark had been, so cruelly, extinguished. I’ve never truly got over his passing – to me, as to thousands of others, he was a hero (children are allowed those).

How did you find the transition between writing articles and match reports to writing a non-fiction biography?

Much easier than expected. I’m lucky in that the magazine which publishes almost all of my football pieces doesn’t deal in match reports; what my editors ask for is far more reflective: essays rather than articles. And I’d long desired to write in English. Using an adopted language somehow frees you – it has an almost intoxicating effect on the writer, which is sometimes hard to check. But I was also well prepared: I’ve always been a diligent, not to say obsessive researcher. And, very soon, I found the shape the book should take, when I became convinced that his story was that of a man who was scared of failure, and of dying – which, as a footballer, he did, after several suicide attempts.

What advice would you, as you are now, give yourself as a 16-year-old?

I’m struggling for an answer. Maybe Larkin’s closing lines of ‘The Mower’:
“we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time”.

What was the first book you remember falling in love with?

I read compulsively from a very early age, and ruined my eyesight as a result. But the first book that haunted me to such an extent that it truly changed my idea of what life could be, was ‘Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve’, Yevs Bonnefoy’s first collection of poems. Their marriage of sternness and sensuality is immensely appealing to me, as is their perfect feel for form, and sparing elegance.

If you were not a writer what would you do?

A musician, which, thankfully, I am, though it’s not an activity I practise as often as I’d wish. Barring that, an archeologist, as my grandfather was.

What is your worst vice?

Others would say smoking; I’d say: a greediness for life that sometimes leads to recklessness.

What started you writing?

I’ve written for as long as I can remember: a solitary activity which engages you with life, what can be better?

What book are you reading right now?

I’m reading two. At long last, I took a deep breath in and tore into Jules Michelet’s extraordinary ‘Histoire de la révolution française’ (one of the greatest creations of French romanticism). Next to me right now is the ‘Collected Poems’ of Ian Hamilton, whose writing has a physical effect on me that only true poetry (and music) can inspire.

Do you read your reviews, good and bad, and do they make a difference to you?

Yes I do. My work as a musician gets written about rather a lot, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the opinion of perfect strangers can affect me deeply. My favourite review was actually not one of these ‘glowing’ ones that get printed on record sleeves (showing my age, here) or dustjackets, but a remarkably penetrative appreciation of an album I’d spent a great deal of time writing and orchestrating, by Nick Kent. His instinct was so true that he managed to guess – and that wasn’t easy – the very song that had been a major source of inspiration to me during the music’s gestation.

What did you study at University?

Philosophy, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. My chosen subject was Esthetics, and my thesis about the ideas of ‘light and locum’ in Vermeer’s oeuvre.

How to you spend your time when you’re not writing?

Playing the piano, writing scores, collecting and drinking wine, reading, picking mushrooms, playing chess, friendship, dreaming.

Which book would you take to a desert island, and why?

Philip Larkin’s ‘Collected Poems’, which move me beyond words. They are my constant companion – I never travel anywhere without my copy.

Have you got any plans for another book, fiction or non-fiction?

I have several, in fact. I’m currently updating a colossal ‘Dictionary of rock and pop music’, which has become something of a classic in France (something I can say as the main contributor to it is not me, but a very good friend, novelist Michka Assayas – I’m only his second-in-command). Come September, I’ll start work on another football biography (the subject is still a secret), and I’m also entertaining the hubristic idea of a 21st century version of Stendhal’s essay ‘On Love’.

How difficult is it to write in what is your second language?

Surprisingly easy. I think in English most of the time, anyway, and do not think of it as a ‘second language’ anymore; which doesn’t mean I do not make any mistakes. The editing process of Canona’s biography was a humbling experience in that regard. However, one advantage held by the ‘foreigner’ is the freshness of his approach to so-called conventions, a certain fearlessness that I maybe do not possess when I write in my mother tongue.

You’ve been on an extremely interesting career path to get to this point, would you tell our readers how you became a football journalist?

By chance. I met a fellow journalist in the street (I was a producer for the BBC World Service then, and presented a weekly classical music programme), who’d just been approached – totally out of the blue – by France Football magazine. As he was leaving London, he asked me if I’d be interested to be put in touch with them. I immediately said yes. Much to my surprise, they immediately commissioned a ‘test piece’, about Chelsea. I wrote it with great enthusiasm. They liked it, and offered me to become their London correspondent on the spot. ‘I haven’t looked back since’ is, I believe, the customary expression. Incidentally, the man who found a football writer in me is Jean-Marie Lanoé, the dedicatee of the Cantona biography. A nice way to close the small circle of this interview.